Legal Tender

When I was a little girl, I got free breakfast at school.  For as long as I can remember, I packed my own lunch — anything from peanut butter and jelly with lays chips sandwiched in between, a cold hotdog sandwich on sliced bread with mayo and ketchup or a bologna sandwich on sliced bread with mayo.  On the occasion that I got to buy lunch (which was rare), I would get a combination of nickels, dimes and quarters, sometimes even pennies.  They would be wrapped in a cotton handkerchief that was hand embroidered by my great grandma Winters.

My mama labored over her budget.  From sewing machine needles, angst over lost retainers to epilepsy doctor appointments and medications.  She worked one full-time job and bartended on the weekends until 2:00 am to make ends meet.  It took her years to build, manage and save her money.

I remember being 19, new to the Bay Area, and trying to buy the makings of a birthday dinner for my (at the time) boyfriend that included a bottle of wine.  It was a lasagna menu with French bread.  I wandered through the Liquor Barn off of Treat Boulevard in Walnut Creek.  I knew nothing about wine.  All I knew was that I had about $5 for whatever bottle I was going to pick out.  (If you haven’t already done it, you should do the math on my age.  I was 19, in Liquor Barn, buying wine.  Nuff said).

The aisles at the Liquor Barn were similar to today’s BevMo.  Isle after Isle of wine – white, red, light red, dark red, rose, corks, screw tops.  What was a girl to do?  Then I came across my answer – “Spaghetti Red”.  How could one making lasagna go wrong?  Spaghetti = Lasagna + it was $4.99 = WINNING.

I also remember crossing the Bay Bridge for a job interview.  I had two dollars in my pocket (probably in change).  I used the two dollars to get through the toll plaza.  Then I made a wrong turn and had to go back over the bridge and back through the toll plaza.  I had no additional money on me.

Fast forward to my early years of marriage.  When things got tight, I would sit in the family room, watching television (no cable) and hand roll coins to deposit into the bank to cover the bills.  The newlywed joke the day before payday – nothing better than a cold pizza written on a hot check.  Yes, back in the day, you could write a check at the grocery store and it took a minimum of 4 days before it cleared the bank.

My very own great aunt and uncle would collect aluminum cans throughout the year and they would use their funds towards a vacation – usually in the form of a family reunion.   My John collects our recycling and cashes it in.  My Alex does the same.  It’s legal tender.  I watched Alex in the Navy, saving his money and being wise in his choices.   I now watch Anders trying to manage his school budget.  He plays the starving student well.

Imagine my surprise a few months back when I had no time to pack my son’s lunch and he was too lackadaisical to do it himself.   We started off strong at the beginning of the school year packing his lunch; but as schedules ramped up we got sidetracked.   I try to keep a cash budget on hand, but hadn’t been to the bank or an ATM.  So I handed him $4 in quarters for lunch.  On the third day of quarters, he looked at me and said, “Can you not give me quarters for lunch.  I would rather just do without.”

STOP THE PRESSES.  Are you freaking kidding me?  Both of his brothers got quarters on occasion.  I labeled them “their spurs for the day”.  I got spurs that jingle jangle jingle.   Four dollars used to be three dollars which used to be two dollars.

When raising our children, the initial thought was that we would not buy our children cars.  They would not have computers or TVs in their bedrooms (much less their own computer) and that cell phones were for high school.  Yes, times change.  Some I could control, others I couldn’t.  The divorce was definitely a huge change in the rules.  My oldest son got his cell phone a bit early.  He was heading to Great America at the end of 8th grade and had some shithead kids in his class that were not trustworthy.  I wasn’t sending him to Santa Clara, basically unchaperoned, without a cell phone.  I gave him mine which was my work phone.  All of my clients just had to suck it up that day.  When we got home, he got his first cell phone – not a smart phone, but a flip phone or something similar.  Remember the ones where to text, you had to go through the numbers, symbols and letters.  They didn’t take pictures either.   His first car was basically a gift from his cousin – labeled the bitch basket – a 199something VW cabriolet.  It was a convertible with a ragged top.  It has a handle, hence the basket.  He sported that around town, without complaining, with his senior year Mohawk.  Don’t forget about the Knock Off Bike (see blog).

When his second brother hit high school, he got his cell phone – still not a smart phone.  He was blessed when he got his driver’s license that his oldest brother “loaned” him his more current VW while he was deployed.  When the sailor got home and claimed his car back, Anders got the same cousin’s next hand-me-down car, a Subaru hatchback – a big step up from the bitch basket.  Concessions were made due to the divorce, and his need for wheels (for school, driving his brother around and me having a new full-time job).   He also got the better bike.

The conveniences and perks came with downsides.  The biggest being leaving my 17-year old son alone for the weekend with his 10-year old brother while we were caring for my mama in hospice in Chico.  They got off to boy scout camp together.  Anders drove them to the meeting point, they did the weekend camp.  Before he left, his dad gave him instructions.

Anders: “When will you and mom be back?”

Dad:  “After Granny passes.”

Heavy words to give to a 17-year old.

When Anders and Aaron returned from camp on Sunday afternoon.   The boys turned their car into the neighborhood and prepared to turn into the cul du sac.   I remember Anders telling me several weeks later,

Anders: “I wanted you to be home, but I didn’t, because I knew what that would mean.”

He turned into the cul du sac, praying, “don’t be home, don’t be home, don’t be home.”

He turned into the cul du sac and saw our car in the driveway.  He pulled over, put his head on the steering wheel and said, “FUCK”.  That’s my kid.

As my mama grew sicker and we had to delegate responsibilities to the kids, I handed out dollars — whatever anyone needed to get by…gas, pizza, groceries, lunches, clothing.  Here’s the money, take your brother(s) shopping, etc.   I just didn’t have it in me emotionally to quibble over money in the midst of everything else.

I fast forward now, again, to my youngest child.  He wants a jeep, he wants a new gaming computer, he wants a smart phone, he wants lacrosse gear, new shoes, new shorts…he’s growing like a weed.  I try to teach him what is appropriate for his age and for our income, including informing him that “there is no way on God’s green earth I am buying you a jeep.”

About three months before he asked me to stop giving him quarters for lunch, I had started placing spare dollars into his piggy bank.  He never checked it because he thought it was empty.  Over a period of six months or so, I would place dollar bills.  When he did something really cool or nice or heartwarming, I would throw in a five or a ten.  After his quarter boycott, I started placing all of my extra quarters into his piggy bank.  I never said a word.  Just once or twice a week I’d find a dollar or two or a fiver – sometimes from his own laundry which was like getting my own money back.  I would fold it into his piggy bank; but, the quarters became a mission.

He came home last week from boy scout camp.  He had a good week.  He barely salvaged his grades.  He was doing responsible things at home.  He wanted a new piece for his computer which cost approximately $175.  I wasn’t prepared to cash out that kind of dough.  I’m still playing catch up from being unemployed for 10 months.

I sat him down and asked him to get his piggy bank.

“Why? There’s nothing in it.”  I stared him down.

He picked it up surprised at its weight.  He took out the stopper on the bottom.  His piggy bank is a Chinese fortune cookie box.  The change wouldn’t fall out because the hole was blocked by dollar bills.  He started slowly pulling the bills out of the whole about the size of a quarter.

“I don’t remember having money in here.  If I had, I would have used it.”

I sat quietly.  He continued to dig.  By the time he pulled all of the dollars out, he was up to about $57 in bills.  He then started to count the quarters and change.  By the time he was done counting, he has an additional $30 dollars in change.  If we were going to cut a deal, given the money in his piggy bank, he owed an additional $88.  He has just worked off an additional $10 in bathing the dogs.

There was nothing that made my heart glad than watching him stack up the quarters, four at a time, realizing that it was over $30.   $30 in legal tender, .53% of his $57 in bills to bring him to a grand total of $88.  I saw something click in his brain.  This was a good thang.

Never forget where you come from – especially if you didn’t come from much.  Never forget that if you value your money, it will value you.    Never forget the value of a dollar – whatever legal tender it comes from.

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